The Route To Personal Cyberinfrastructure Is Through Storage-Neutral Apps

Jim’s got a great summary of the larger idea behind UMW Domains (written by Ryan Brazell) up on his site. The core idea — personal cyberinfrastructure — is one I buy into, but at the same time the current mechanisms for it (cPanel, personal servers, and the like) seem clunky and not poised for greater adoption (although I watch the Thali project with interest).

Rather, the route to personal cyberinfrastructure is likely to run through storage-neutral apps. Briefly, the way most apps work now is that there is a program on your tablet/desktop/phone that is owned by Company A, and then there is often a certain about of web storage used by that used by that app, also owned by Company A. There’s a certain amount of web-based processing, also done on servers owned by Compnay A.  This is somewhat different than the PC model, where Adobe sold you software but you owned the disk that held all your image creations, Microsoft sold you MS Word but your computer ran it, etc.

The cPanel-as-infrastructure response to that is to move to an all-web-app where you own the server. Some of the apps have mobile extensions to them, but by and large you avoid the lock-in of both modern web apps (Google Docs, Dropbox, Tumblr) and modern apps by going to open, HTML-based web apps.

This works, but it seems to me an intermediate step. You get the freedoms you want, but the freedoms you care about are actually a pain in the ass to exercise. Klint Finley, in a post on what a new open software movement might look like, nicely summarizes the freedoms people actually want from most applications (as opposed to content):

  • Freedom to run software that I’ve paid for on any device I want without hardware dongles or persistent online verification schemes.
  • Freedom from the prying eyes of government and corporations.
  • Freedom to move my data from one application to another.
  • Freedom to move an application from one hosting provider to another.
  • Freedom from contracts that lock me in to expensive monthly or annual plans.
  • Freedom from terms and conditions that offer a binary “my way or the highway” decision.

You get all those freedoms from the web-app personal cyber infrastructure, but you get them because you do all the work yourself. Additionally, your average user does not care about some of the hard-won freedoms baked into things like WordPress — the ability to hack the code (we care about that very much, but the average person does not). They really just want to use it without being locked forever into a provider to keep their legacy content up.

What I think people want (and what they are not provided) is a means to buy software where others do all this work for you, but you hold on to these freedoms. And assuming we live in a market that tries to match people with products they want (big assumption) the way that will come about is storage neutral net-enabled apps. I’ll own virtual server space and cycles somewhere (Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Squarespace, wherever). I’ll buy apps. But instead of installing software and data on the app-provider’s server, they’ll install to my stack on the web. And because they’ll encrypt that data, the company that runs my server won’t be able to see it either. My subscription to Adobe or Word will operate much like older subscriptions. Subscription will get me updates, but at any given point I stop paying Adobe I can still run my web app on my server in the state it was in when I stopped paying them.

Why is this more possible than the open web app model? None of the  major providers have much incentive to go this route. Subscriptions are a lucrative business with undreamed of lock-in potential. I would say there are two reasons. First, companies with a virtual server platform (Microsoft, Google, Amazon) have some incentive to promote this model. Even Apple has a chance here to pair its app store with virtual server space. Second, and more importantly, such a scheme would be a huge boon to small developers and hackers. Knowing  that they don’t have to scale up server architecture to sell server-powered apps frees them to focus on the software instead of scalability, the way that API-rich operating systems allowed previous generations of developers to focus on their own core product. And as this broadens out to where everyone’s phone has a slice of supercomputer attached to it, some really neat things become possible: truly federated wikis where pages are spread across multiple personal sites, music software that can write down effect-laden tracks in near real-time using rented processor time, music library apps written in 200 lines of code. That’s the larger win, and that’s where we want to be heading, the place where practical user freedoms and developer capabilities meet.

23 thoughts on “The Route To Personal Cyberinfrastructure Is Through Storage-Neutral Apps

  1. So I’m having a hard time following you here. Are you saying that, instead of teaching students to be self-sufficient, we should instead help them pay other people to do the work for them? that’s not a slight change from our existing setup, that’s the complete opposite of what we’re trying to achieve.

  2. You’re always paying for people to do the work for you — someone builds the server, someone runs it. Someone writes the code. There’s no such thing as self-sufficiency, only the illusion of it.

    The question is — what problems are you trying to solve? I think Klint Finley’s list is a good start. There is an all-or-nothing deal one must make with onine services and mobile apps today that seems unprecedented in history. My argument is the simplest way to solve that is to return to an old, familiar model that worked relatively well, but with a modern twist. You buy software, or get freeware, or shareware, or whatever (that part, to my mind, is the least important element). But the corporate software, shareware, or freeware interfaces with YOUR PERSONAL online storage and online processing capabilities via standard open APIs that extend the power of your local devices.

    In that case you have only a couple services you are paying for — storage and an application stack. But you OWN these, and you OWN (to some extent) the software you have installed on them. It frees you from what has been the real scam here, and the thing we must really address: the all-or-nothing commercial HTML-based web-app and, as Jim would term it, its will to power.

    There are some nice things about this from a DTLT persepective. Imagine telling people to get their DTLT built desktop blogging program or tablet app, and having part of that process be them selecting whther they would like to use Reclaim as their app backend or something else. That to me seems much more natural than logging on to your server and installatroning WordPress. For the average user, the server should be an invisible element, like your computer’s hard drive, RAM, or CPU. Because that’s ultimately what the server is in a hybrid app, and pushing users up to the physical layer of the server to set things up seems as conceptually wrong as asking what sector of the hard drive you’d like your desktop app installed on.The visible pieces here are the interface and the web address, I think, full stop.

    Does that make things more clear or more murky? Or more repugnant to you ;)?

  3. It’s definitely clearer, thanks! I’m not sure how I feel about the concept, though 🙂 Let me address a couple of your points:

    “You get all those freedoms from the web-app personal cyber infrastructure, but you get them because you do all the work yourself.”

    Yes! That’s exactly the point. Freedom isn’t free, you either pay for it with money or you pay for it with your own labor. Paying for it with money is faster in the short run, but problematic in the long run, because what happens when you can’t find anybody to do your work for you anymore? Paying with sweat equity takes more time in the short run, but has the added benefit of learning valuable skills that can’t be taken away in the future. Those skills are, imo, a really crucial part of the Reclaim experience.

    “In that case you have only a couple services you are paying for — storage and an application stack. But you OWN these, and you OWN (to some extent) the software you have installed on them.”

    I don’t think ownership of the infrastructure is important — ownership of your content is the real key. I have advocated in the past that those who are comfortable with running their domain should consider getting a VPS and taking even greater control over their environment. But even then, leasing the environment makes more sense because 1) it allows you to be flexible, to change your mind and 2) you can more easily keep up as technology changes / becomes more powerful and less expensive.

    “There are some nice things about this from a DTLT perspective. Imagine telling people to get their DTLT built desktop blogging program or tablet app…The visible pieces here are the interface and the web address, I think, full stop.”

    Frankly, I hope to never have a job that requires programming things for other people, that’s not edtech (although I know some folks might disagree). Edtech, imo, is about helping other people work through the process of finding and/or building an environment for themselves. In order to make good decisions about the web, people need to know about how the web works, and the web is a lot more than the interface and the web address.

    I still think that what you’re proposing here is no small shift from what Reclaim currently looks like. I think the fundamental difference between us at this moment boils down to this: I think it’s important that people get their hands dirty. Reclaim isn’t clean or tidy. It’s not easy or quick. It’s a process that requires a lot of thought and effort — theoretically, technically, practically — and that’s exactly the way it should be.

  4. I’m intrigued by this concept Mike, even if I barely understand it. Yet I speculate that sorting out if if will be storage neutral apps versus web-based cpanel might be a tad of horse before the carting.

    There is a blank load of assumptions in stating “what people want”; and this concept is so far on the edges (most people probably “want” facebook and netflix) that this is not anything in the scope of what people think they want. How do we get people to even understand the importance of it? What has been the findings at DoOO if I sift the tea leaves right, is that most “people” (meaning those incoming students) do not have an inkling of this as an important piece of their lives- its the interaction they get in the scope of coursework that they may begin to appreciate what is on the table.

    So of course as this story develops there’s going to be some of both flavors. I’m with Ryan and Jim that a bit of struggling to figure things out is a Good Thing, what I always go back to the words of UMW prof Jeff McClurken said about wanting his students to be “uncomfortable but not paralyzed.

    And also, FWIW, not all cpanels are equal. IN the last year, I have worked on projects with at least 4 different hosting providers who’s web management system, especially the back end that manages the stuff even before you get to a panel, are radically different (hippie hosting, a small orange, media temple, and some screwy one that gives mr headaches so bad I don’t like to write its name).

    So we have a lot of work cut out to help create the demand.

  5. Tom Woodward sent me this wonderful comment, which apparently got eaten by Pasting it here:

    Sadly, ironically and/or for the betterment of humans my earlier lengthy reply was eaten by the Internet browser gods.This post is meant to add blurriness rather than clarity.

    What I can never decide is where the freedom lies. How deep do you have to go? How close to the metal?

    If you go with something like “what happens when you can’t find anybody to do your work for you anymore?” I can’t see how that ever ends. What happens when someone won’t sell you cPanel? or a virtual server? or electricity? or food? We make huge choices every day that rely on someone else providing for us based on money. These choices have to do with our lives and I say that not for hyperbole but as someone who worries about that (not prepper level worry but probably more than might be socially acceptable). Where is the concern for digital freedom likely to lie in light of that?

    Easiness is another thing I struggle with because I do see benefits in the struggle. But what is too easy? Is cPanel too easy? Is WordPress too easy? Stephen Downes rolls his own (everything?). I’ve seen people claim that if you weren’t writing assembly you couldn’t really understand programming. I’ve seen others who say if you haven’t actually made hardware you can’t really understand programming. I can believe that. I could learn a ton from smelting metal, weaving cloth, print making, developing film- what’s more I’d actually want to do that. How do you decide what’s hard enough and deep enough for someone else? I have no idea.

    The seemingly strong reaction against programming is strange to me. If edtech is teaching people to take advantage of things that people have programmed, does it really matter if you did the programming? It seems that many of the powerful communal and UMW specific aspects of DoOO are a result of programming. Does customizing a WordPress theme count as programming? I can get not being interested in programming but not seeing it as an element of edtech seems extreme. I get the desire to empower but it seems like that can take many forms, including programming.

    I do worry that App models will strip people of the ability to get their hands dirty. The threshold will be low and inviting but there won’t be much room inside and the next step will be very, very high. Yet people clearly like apps. I’d like a web built entirely of viewable source but I don’t see that as too likely.

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